Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published in “Life in Durham”

A Durham Moment: ‘Instead of cake, we’re having ice cream.’

The sunset is hazy above the downtown skyline, and the heat still beats down on the asphalt street. The humidity isn’t choking, as it usually is in North Carolina summers, but it is certainly hot enough to warrant a trip out for ice cream with family and friends—especially when it’s free.

It is the summer solstice–June 21st–but more importantly, it is Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream’s annual First Day of Summer Party, awarding a free scoop to those who join their rewards program. The famous ice cream franchise recently opened its first Durham location in the Brightleaf District, and so tonight is its grand opening, too.

At 6:55 p.m.,the line already wraps around the building, and through the parking lot. The store is typically hidden from the street, tucked away behind Goorsha Ethiopian restaurant and around the back of Shooters II nightclub. The only evidence of its presence are the ceiling string lights that decorate its outdoor seating area and the tips of illuminated letters spelling out the store’s name poking up above the buildings. Tonight, however, the shop has drawn a crowd visible from down the block. And it isn’t even open yet.

Children dart about like dragonflies, weaving through the clumps of customers-to-be and making new friends, as children typically do. They ask their parents, who wait lazily in the heat, why the ice cream is taking so long, naïve to the fact that tonight is a special night.

The first 50 customers in line receive placards to commemorate their punctuality and dedication to the noble cause of free ice cream, and standing proudly with number one is Hadja Thiam.

Hadja is a connoisseur of the company’s gourmet ice cream. Hadja, a nurse practitioner at Duke University, was hooked on Jeni’s the instant she tried it. With the closest store all the way in Charlotte, however, she was left with no choice but to order herself pints once (or twice) a month from the company’s website. They would arrive on her doorstep in large orange boxes, surrounded by dry ice like jewels in a treasure chest of gold.

Now, with the opening of the Durham location, Hadja only has to travel a few steps beyond the doorstep. Store employees crowned her with a bright orange trucker hat, emblazoned with white letters reading, “I was first in line at Jeni’s!” And at 7 p.m., when the doors open, Hadja jumps right through, pumping her fists triumphantly. 

As the night goes on, the line only gets longer. The promise of a free single scoop (usually $5.95 a pop) draws ice cream fanatics from all over. Claire is number 6 in line, and she traveled from Carrboro just for the event. Toni, number 12, drove from Cary to visit the location where her son works, and for the chance to try some new flavors. The deal even captured the attention of blue-haired Astrid, number 49, who claims to be loyal to East Durham’s Two Roosters Ice Cream. However, even the most loyal can be turned. 

“The coffee [flavor] is literally out of this world,” raved Astrid about “Coffee with Cream and Sugar.” “Like, I don’t understand how it is so good. It’s not like any other coffee ice cream I’ve ever had.”

Jeni’s was originally founded in Columbus, Ohio, in 2002 by entrepreneur and ice-cream-queen Jeni Britton Bauer. As of 2022, it has expanded to 19 cities, from Durham, to Houston, to Tampa, to Nashville, and so on.

The franchise prides itself on its handmade ice cream with unique flavors. Some fan favorites include Brown Butter Almond Brittle, Pineapple Upside Down Cake, and Sweet Cream Biscuits and Peach Jam. 

The company does have some custard competition in Durham. Places like Two Roosters and the Parlour have local loyalists that could be turned off by the fact that Jeni’s is a chain and a newcomer to Durham. Corporate employee Dan Sierzputowski claims they have had no such trouble, though. “It is a great town,” said Dan, dressed in a green Jeni’s T-shirt and a gleaming smile. “The city has been welcoming to us, customers have been welcoming to us. We could see the town was just exploding.”

As darkness falls, the air cools, but the party is still heating up. For three hours, the line snakes around the patio to the back of the parking lot. By 8:30 p.m., about 150 people crowd the block. The limited outdoor seating, an amalgamation of abstract-style benches and quaint wooden tables, forces some customers to enjoy their ice cream standing or in the popped trunks of their cars. 

Dogs pant out the nighttime heat in the parking lot, some being lucky enough to get their own whipped white desserts to devour. High school girls gossip in between licks of Lavender, old friends catch up over a cone of Chocolate Sheet Cake, parents take a break with Brambleberry Crisp while their toddlers gorge themselves on Gooey Butter Cake. The night is still young.

Standing at the corner of the patio are Matt and Kara. She sports a pink Jeni’s shirt and has been buying pints of the stuff at Whole Foods for years, ordering online when she can’t get to a store. Matt, Kara’s fiance, noticed this passion and took it to the next level for his partner. When he asked Kara to marry him, he brought Jeni’s along.

The lovebirds ate cups of the sweet dessert after Kara said yes, and even took their engagement photos outside the original Jeni’s in Ohio. The two are finally tying the knot this weekend at a North Carolina beach, but they plan on pushing the boundaries a bit to honor their love (of ice cream).

“Instead of cake,” Kara said,  “we’re having ice cream.”

Above (from Top): Crowds await a free scoop; Hadja Thiam is first in line; and Matt and Kara united over ice cream. Photos by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal 

On Juneteenth, Stagville’s past lives on at historic site — and in descendants’ memories

The Union soldiers had come down Old Oxford Road, chasing Confederate soldiers out of Stagville Plantation. They arrived at Stagville’s Horton Grove, which at the time was home to some 900 enslaved people.

“They told my great aunt, ‘Fix us some food,’” Ricky L. Hart says, repeating a story passed down to him in his youth. “So, the soldiers had this long feast. In the end, the soldiers finished eating and drinking coffee, and they were like, ‘Y’all free.’”

That’s how enslaved people at Stagville, one of the largest slave plantations in North Carolina, learned that they had been freed, recalls Hart, 59, a Durham native and fifth-generation Stagville descendent.

On a balmy summer day, as Durham readies for the Juneteenth holiday, Hart discusses what emancipation meant to his relatives 157 years ago.

When they heard that the Union soldiers were coming, some enslaved people threw parties, including at Stagville. Others didn’t know what to make of the news, Hart says.

“Because, for six, seven, eight generations before you, the plantation was all you knew. You didn’t know what freedom was.” 

Stagville is an immense property, he notes. Those forty-three square miles would’ve made fleeing a nearly impossible task.

“They didn’t have any concept of how big it was,” Hart says. “If you ran, you only ran for three or four miles. Then you stopped and walked. You still had 40 miles to go. So, you could be walking for weeks and still be on the site.”

And so, the Hart family stayed on after emancipation. Several members arranged share-cropping agreements with the Camerons. This guaranteed food for their families and offered the possibility of land ownership. The family resided in the Hart House—which Hart refers to as “number 13.”

When you arrive at Horton Grove, the Hart House is the first thing that you see. It stands out—the only painted house in the group adorned with a terracotta-colored metal roof. It was a multi-family home. Ricky Hart’s relatives cohabitated in the house in the early twentieth century.

“When you get upstairs, there’s a room to the right, and then there’s one to the left,” Hart says. “My grandfather, Willis and his family lived downstairs for a while. And his brother, Ephraim, lived upstairs with his family. So it’s like you got all these people living there. Your wife and your six children—all in one room.”

Hart’s uncle, Ephraim, was the last to leave the Hart House, departing in 1975 to resettle elsewhere. And long afterward, for ten years, Hart relatives held annual family reunions here. “I still got pictures and sign-in sheets… all kinds of stuff. The staff at Stagville were always glad to have us,” Hart says. 

 In 1976, the Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company, which owned the land after the Bennehans sold it, donated it to the state. This circumstance birthed Historic Stagville as a North Carolina State Historic Site, where the Hart name comes up again and again in the site’s “Emancipation Tours.”  

***

The tours begin at the visitor’s center. To escape the clammy Carolina air, attendees trickle into a dimly-lit green shed. Among them are well-meaning parents, curious children and teenagers and an interpreter-in-training. The gift shop showcases books such as Nikole Hannah-Jones’ The 1619 Project and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, along with soaps, lotions and candles from a local black-owned business. Thumb-tacked grayscale portraits of Stagville inhabitants are accompanied by brief biographies of the residents.

Vera Cecelski, the site manager and guide, ushers the assembly outside to embark on the emancipation tour. 

***

The tour starts at the Bennehan-Cameron family home, in the center of Stagville, a colonial framed structure with white columns, red-bricked chimneys and a gray, shingled roof.

Before the end of the Civil War, the Bennehan and Cameron families lived here, supervising slave activities and imposing cruel punishments. As the war drew to a close, for many enslaved people, freedom was a life or death wager. On a neighboring plantation, a young girl named Sarah witnessed Confederate soldiers threatening her family members, Cecelski says.

“She said they took each man in the yard, held them at gunpoint and asked them if they wanted to be free,” Cecelski says. “Sarah watched the murders of three of her uncles that day because they dared to tell these soldiers that they wanted their freedom.”

***

After emancipation, the Cameron family moved on from Stagville. But the name has not disappeared from the area.  Towards the end of the tour, a participant asks, “So, a lot of the places in the Triangle with Cameron names come from this family? Like the Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke?” The crowd giggles.

Cameron Indoor Stadium is actually named for a different Cameron family from outside North Carolina, Cecelski says. But the Cameron family that owned the Stagville plantation – that name persists, even as Confederate statues have fallen in Durham and on the UNC Campus.

“You can still see the Cameron name—probably the most prominent place is in Chapel Hill,” Cecelski says. “Cameron Avenue runs through campus and is named for Paul Cameron, who was the single largest slave-holder here at the time of the Civil War.”

***

Back at Horton Grove, Cecelski concludes the tour, standing in a grassy plot adjacent to Old Oxford Highway,   a plot Ricky Hart remembers once was planted entirely in tobacco. 

“When you leave today, whatever route you drive away from this place, you’re probably following one of the old roads or paths—roads that families took as they left this place and tried to find one where they could access true freedom,” Cecelski says. “So, I invite you to carry with you the following thought: if you head to almost any of the cities nearby—Durham, Raleigh—you’re heading to a place that has been shaped, in some way, by freed people.”

Ricky L. Hart, and so many others, she says, live to tell the tale.

***

On June 18, Historic Stagville, 5828 Old Oxford Highway, will hold its 15th annual Juneteenth commemoration. The site also will continue guided Emancipation Tours on June 19 and 25.

Above: Stagville descendant Ricky Hart, photo by Ana Young — The 9th Street Journal

Center and below: The Hart House in Stagville’s Horton Grove; glimpses of former residents on a Stagville bulletin board,;and paths lead away from Horton Grove. Photos by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal 

She helped make history: Former activist remembers Durham’s historic sit-in

The Greensboro sit-in of 1960 is famous, celebrated in museums and history books. Yet three years earlier, a group of seven young activists sparked the sit-in movement by refusing to leave a segregated ice cream parlor in Durham on June 23, 1957. 

As the 65th anniversary of the Royal Ice Cream sit-in approaches next week, Mary Clyburn-Hooks, one of two surviving members of the “Royal Seven,” reflected on her part in a critical episode of the Civil Rights movement. Hooks, now 85, recounted her story in a phone interview from her home in New Jersey.

 In 1957, she was living at the Harriet Tubman YWCA in Durham, which also provided housing for Black student nurses. Hooks soon befriended fellow residents Vivian Jones and Virginia Williams.

As the trio left the building one Sunday, they were intercepted by a group of activists. The group was led by the Rev. Douglas Moore, a classmate and contemporary of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hooks, Jones, and Williams were invited to a private political gathering.

“These men were getting ready, Reverend Moore and other guys,” Hooks said.  “And so, they were saying that they were getting ready to go to [Royal Ice Cream Parlor] and did we want to ride with them. And that’s how we got to meet them. That’s how we got there.” 

Located at the corner of Dowd and Roxboro streets, the Royal Ice Cream Parlor was popular with the Black community. Yet the business forced its Black patrons to enter through the back door and eat at separate tables.

To me, they had moved in our neighborhood and I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t treat us better than that, than not letting us sit down,” Hooks said.

Following an evening church service led by Moore, she and her partners went to the ice cream parlor and sat at a booth reserved for white patrons. She remembers ordering “top-shelf stuff”: a generous serving of ice cream with chocolate.

To take up seats in booths reserved for white customers was to defy not only city ordinances but social conventions of the Jim Crow South.

They told [Moore] that if we were to get waited on, we would have to go on the colored side,” Hooks said. “But for some reason, we told them we didn’t want to go there. And there were some white people in there when we first went in. But after we sat down, they jumped up and ran out of the place and I saw them peeping back in there, I guess to see what we would go and do.” 

A busboy asked the activists to leave the booth. When they stood their ground, the manager, Louis Coletta, called the police. The Royal Seven were arrested on counts of trespassing and were fined $10 each plus court costs the next day. 

They appealed their case to Durham County Superior Court, but an all-white jury upheld the guilty verdict after just 24 minutes of deliberations. The North Carolina Supreme Court also heard their case and maintained the legality of segregated facilities. Despite another appeal, the protesters were denied a trial at the national level.

The community’s reception of the sit-in was mixed. Some believed that Moore’s actions were too risky and radical, especially at a time when the local NAACP was still fighting to dismantle segregation in public schools. More conservative civil rights activists feared that the losses in the courts set a dangerous legal precedent. 

I was shocked, because a lot of colored people thought it was terrible,” said Hooks.

Though the Royal Ice Cream sit-in did not bring about the end of legal segregation in Durham, it reignited the conversation about civil rights locally and inspired area youth to follow the Royal Seven’s example. Protests organized by Moore and prominent Black attorney Floyd McKissick sprung up in and around the city. In 1963, after six long years of picketing and protests, Royal Ice Cream Parlor was finally integrated. 

The North Carolina Office of Archives and History placed a historical marker at the site of the parlor in 2008, which states that the sit-in “led to court case testing dual racial facilities.” The seven are also commemorated in vivid color as part of the Durham Civil Rights Mural, located at 120 Morris Street. 

Hooks has never taken her rights for granted. “Every time I get a chance, I try to sit down somewhere,” she said.

Though the story of the sit-in may not be widely known, it remains an important part of civil rights history in the South. As Hooks said, “It got started in Durham.”

Above (from left): The Rev. Douglas Moore, Mary Clyburn-Hooks and others pray before entering the Royal Ice Cream Parlor in 1957. Photo courtesy of the Durham County Library’s North Carolina Collection. Center: A historic marker commemorates the Royal Ice Cream sit-in. Photo by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal

Historic Harriet Tubman YWCA prepares for new role

After narrowly escaping demolition, a building that played an important role in Durham’s African-American history is getting a new lease on life. 

The red-brick structure on 312 Umstead Street was home to the Harriet Tubman YWCA from 1953 to 1977. Over half a century later, a new project— under the name Harriet’s House— will transform the building into affordable housing for low-income residents.

Harriet’s House is spearheaded by the Durham nonprofit Reinvestment Partners. The project is part of a broader effort to combat the effects of gentrification in Durham, said executive director Peter Skillern. 

See, single-family homes that sold for $20,000 are now selling for $200,000 just for the land underneath,” Skillern said in an interview. “And the redevelopment of Harriet Tubman YWCA is trying to preserve the history of Durham, while creating affordable housing in the midst of a gentrification that’s intense.”  

The renovation will create 15 studio apartments in addition to a communal space with offices, computers and a kitchen, according to Skillern. His group has renovated several other properties in the area.

During its operational years at the height of the civil rights movement, the YWCA provided housing for Black student nurses as well as community programming, social activities for youth and meetings for political organizers. Notably, it was home to three of the “Royal Seven,” who made history at the 1957 Royal Ice Cream sit-in in Durham. The group first met at the YWCA, according to Mary Clyburn-Hooks, one of two surviving members. Their activism set the foundation for the better-known Greensboro sit-in of 1960, which took place at a segregated lunch counter and was a catalyst for the decade’s sit-in movement.

Once a community hub, the Harriet Tubman YWCA declined in the decades following its closure. The building fell into disrepair and was adopted by squatters. After receiving several police reports about unsafe conditions, the city eventually issued a demolition order in 2015.

But in April, Durham community members met with officials to accept an economic development grant to fund the building’s restoration. The $1 million grant was issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The renovation process strikes a balance between maintaining a rich history and providing for generations to come. 

“We looked at, as a redevelopment agency, how do we intervene and help make a difference, to help preserve its history as well as stabilize it?” Skillern said.

Reinvestment Partners also plans to pay homage to the Y’s unique history through art, which will be displayed both publicly and inside the building. Harriet’s Place is currently in the predevelopment stage, with zoning, finance and design underway. Construction will begin in March 2023 and residents can be expected to move in by July 2024. 

The building might look deserted now, surrounded by a padlocked, chain-link fence. But there’s hope that in two years’ time, 312 Umstead Street will be full of life once again. 

Above: Photos of the former Harriet Tubman YWCA by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal

As the city eyes expansion, county residents push back

Sherron Road. Doc Nichols Road. Baptist Road. Olive Branch Road. These roads run through  southeast Durham, connecting small townships and farms, overhung by pine branches. Quaint brick homes and churches sit nestled in the forest, near elementary schools and fresh produce stands. But along the shoulders of the roads, orange zoning notices dot the tall grass like a new species of flower, and landscapes fade from green forest to orangey-red dirt, topped with rolling hills of mulched trees. Bulldozers graze in the fields, and pink flags mark the sites where construction blasts will next rattle the backyard wind chimes. 

Unfortunately for the folks who prefer the quiet life, it looks like rural Durham is next up to be devoured by urban sprawl– but not if the new group Preserve Rural Durham can help it.

On Thursday, June 9, city-county planning department staff members Scott Whiteman and Alexander Cahill met with Preserve Rural Durham and other rural residents at Oak Grove Ruritan Club to discuss Durham’s new Comprehensive Plan draft and hear concerns from attendees on the plan’s 227 objectives.

The comprehensive plan guides what can be built where in Durham, and most importantly to a Preserve Rural Durham, determines the city’s Urban Growth Area boundary. A new plan is long overdue, as the most recent iteration was written in 2005, 17 years ago. In a place as rapidly growing as Durham, 17 years is a long time.

The last comprehensive plan recommended expansive development into rural areas to help ease the housing crisis. The new document includes many of the same goals. However, Preserve Rural Durham has a different vision.

The nonprofit, founded by retired science teacher Pam Andrews in February, is dedicated to protecting rural areas of Durham that are threatened by the region’s rapid development, particularly southeastern Durham County. The June 9 meeting is part of a series of meetings Durham planning staff are holding to discuss the comprehensive plan with rural residents and others.  

On Thursday, attendees trickled into the wood-paneled meeting room at the Ruritan Club, many clad in green and tan t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Preserve Rural Durham.” Before the meeting, the core team, made up of Andrews, her husband, and other volunteers ranging from young farmers to retired scientists, invited attendees to sign up for the group’s weekly e-mail listerv and to pick up the bright green and yellow yard signs  protesting development. (“John Deere-colored, so you can see them driving by!” said Andrews.) 

Whiteman began the meeting by sharing a statistic. The planning commission predicts the county’s population will increase by 130,000 by 2050, he said. That expected growth is fueling the need for rapid expansion, and southeastern rural Durham has been designated as the best place for this growth, he said. 

“You can’t stop population growth,” Whiteman said after the meeting. “There’s no practical way to do that.”

Residents, however, voiced concerns about the proposed expansion, noting the city’s failure to follow its previous comprehensive plan. While that plan called for  “low-density residential development” with two-four units per acre in rural areas, the city instead approved complexes of townhomes with 8-12 homes per acre, speakers said. Higher-density housing is necessary to create affordable housing and to remedy Durham’s current housing crisis, said Whiteman and Cahill. Residents, though, see it as a threat to the natural beauty and quiet space they value. 

Attendees said more high-density housing will increase traffic, and they questioned whether southeast Durham has the necessary infrastructure to support more development. Resident Antonio Jones complained that as congestion increases in Oak Grove and neighboring townships, getting to basic necessities like grocery stores and schools has become an ordeal.

“We all know, getting to the Food Lion is a mission at this point,” said Jones. 

Residents also said area emergency services, such as fire stations and emergency medical services, are already insufficient. Whiteman and Cahill replied that future development would not begin until funding is set aside to provide more emergency services. 

Some residents also seemed concerned about more than losing their quiet lives to rapid development. Preserve Rural Durham’s mission includes bringing awareness to the environmental impacts of rapid development on surrounding areas, such as Falls Lake. The group has compiled evidence of environmental degradation caused by development, such as what Andrews calls “tomato soup.”

Tomato soup in this context is no delicious lunch to be paired with a grilled cheese—it is red, muddy runoff from construction sites. Often chock full of nitrates and phosphates from bulldozed farmland, the mud flows into Falls Lake and neighboring creeks and provides nutrients for toxic algae to grow and pollute the lake, Andrews said.

The new draft plan includes promises of environmental protection. Yet the city’s previous plan also pledged to protect watersheds and other environments, said former scientist Tom Freeman. Degradation of floodplains and water sources still occurs, he said.“Go out there and look at the land, folks,” he said. “I hope you see a disconnect.”

One theme dominated many residents’ comments: representation.

The planning department that is drafting the comprehensive plan serves the city and the county jointly, with county commissioners and city council both given say in matters of zoning and development. However, when land falls within Durham city limits, city council has the final say. 

Through “voluntary annexation,” developers can opt to be incorporated into the city limits in order to use city resources like water and sewage. Once a piece of property has been accepted into the city, the city council—not the county commissioners— has the authority to approve or deny zoning. Rural residents, including many  Preserve Rural Durham members, live outside the city limits and so don’t vote for city council. So once a property is annexed into the city, rural residents lose the power to choose who has the final say over development bordering their property. 

“We can’t vote for the people who are making the decisions,” an exasperated Andrews said at the meeting, echoing comments by several other speakers. 

Cahill and Whiteman acknowledged residents’ frustration, recommending that they use a feedback survey about the plan. Meanwhile, another meeting is scheduled for June 21 at the Bahama Ruritan Club, and on June 23, four more tracts of county land are set to be voted on for annexation. Residents can also offer feedback by attending a virtual session on June 28. 

Preserve Rural Durham will continue to show up.

“That’s how things go down in Durham,” said Jones. “Go down there and raise hell.” 

Editor’s note: More information about the comprehensive plan is available here. Survey responses about the plan will be accepted through June 30.

Above: Bulldozers clear land for a new housing development near the Oak Grove township in Durham County; Pam Andrews leads the new group Preserve Rural Durham. Photos by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal 

Skating fans seek retread for Wheels

With its skating rink, go-karts, mini-golf and a snack bar, Wheels Family Fun Park was once among Durham’s most popular venues for parties and community-building events. 

Now, the city’s plans to build a swimming pool on the eight-acre property have sparked the concerns of Durham residents. At a Monday evening city council meeting, nearly a dozen gathered to express their hopes of keeping the rink alive for generations to come.

Wheels closed in 2020 after four decades of operation, and was later purchased by the city. Last month, city parks and recreation officials announced a $31 million project to install a swimming pool on the Hoover Road site. However, the plans left Durhamites with few answers regarding the fate of the beloved roller rink.

At Monday’s meeting, speakers highlighted Wheels as a safe space for marginalized youth. Allison Swaim teaches at Riverside High School, where the majority of her students are Black and Latino. As an assignment, she asked her students to design a Google map of their favorite places in Durham. Most included Wheels.

“I would love to see this become— stay—a public resource, that our community could have joy together in,” Swaim said. “So please look into what it would take to save this facility that already exists.”

Seven of the night’s speakers represented Bull City Roller Derby, a Durham-based skating group whose members spoke about the sense of community they’d found on the rink. Roller Derby member Erin Bueno says skating at Wheels helped her battle major depressive disorder and become more comfortable with her identity.

It saved my life in terms of helping me through my first depressive bout in 2018 and then also giving me a healthy outlet to again, transmute my feelings into something that’s more productive,” she said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “And it gave me a way to find myself as a queer person.” 

The Raleigh-Durham Skaters’ Association, headed by Eddie Watson, also hosted events at the rink. Watson, who leads weekly skating classes in Raleigh, has seen increased attendance as the pastime surged in popularity during the pandemic. Some skaters are young women whose interest was piqued by TikTok trends. Others are elderly folks that have been skating for decades. “Between the people, the music, the atmosphere, it’s all creating the juices to inspire, or to just be a part of something,” he said in an interview.

On Monday, some council members seemed receptive to citizens’ concerns. After the meeting, council member Mark-Anthony Middleton called Wheels  “part of the DNA of Durham,” and said he was open to continuing the dialogue.

“I would love to see if we could preserve it,” he said.

Several speakers said that, as a year-round venue, a roller rink could draw in more revenue than a seasonal aquatic center. Middleton expressed that, though finances would be taken into consideration, value to the Durham community was of greater importance to him.

At a Thursday afternoon city council work session, Middleton said that making a decision about preserving the skating rink would be “premature.”

“It’s way too early to suggest we’re going to go into the skating business as a city, at this point,” Middleton said. “We might, but I think the staff should have the opportunity to look at this.” 

Council member Jillian Johnson also stressed the importance of getting more input.

“I think we should wait until we have a full picture of what the community wants” before we make a decision,” Johnson said. 

Mary Unterreiner, public information and communication manager for Durham parks and recreation, said in an interview that plans for the former Wheels site are still underway. 

Unterreiner said the department has sought community engagement for the project through pop-up events, presentations and a survey that received 500 responses from Durhamites. 

Outreach will continue this summer, and parks and recreation will present its recommendation for the site to the city council in September, she said. Construction for the aquatics center will take several years, and the facility will not be open to the public for an estimated three to four years, she added.

Unterreiner stressed that while funding has been allocated to the aquatic center in the proposed city budget, the pool and a skating rink are not necessarily mutually exclusive. 

“It is not an either-or situation,” Unterreiner said. “The two can absolutely coexist right now. It is a matter of priority.” 

“What we do know is, what we have the funding for is the aquatics facility—the aquatic center—at the Wheels Fun Park site. But that’s not to say that there couldn’t be a future where the existing amenities or the skating rink also exist. And that could be a really exciting feature.”

Above: Photo of the Wheels Family Fun Park — The 9th Street Journal. Photo of Erin Bueno The 9th Street Journal’s Ana Young. 

Stop and take the roses

The world can be a bleak place (see politics). Even Cosmic Cantina — home of what is truly “The Best Mexican Food On The Planet” — can be a bleak place (see college students drunkenly crying over breakups). But sometimes the wafting scent of Cosmic’s fry oil mingles with the perfume of real, fresh roses. There’s a little joy in the air.

In the stairwell that leads up into the cosmos — ok, the Mexican restaurant on the second floor — a bin sometimes appears, full of flowers. The bin — black, plastic, 2-feet tall, and about as plain as they come — is one of Durham’s accidental secrets.

It sits at the back door of Ninth Street Flowers. More OfficeMax under-desk-trash-can than vase, the bin is nevertheless filled with water and whichever over-ripe blooms can’t go in the fine flower shop’s expertly curated bouquets. A notecard, attached to the bin with a clothespin, says “FREE.” You can take any of the pungent blooms you desire, but “Please,” the flower shop asks in tiny letters, “leave our container.” 

Today the black bin is filled with roses. Red, pink, yellow, white, eviscerated. 

The flowers, tucked away in the narrow graffitied hallway, are a generosity afforded to all who might almost trip over the bin that holds them. (Were I an English major at some fussy school, I might be tempted to note the juxtaposition of the scene — the fresh flowers in a practical trash can, the natural beauty of roses coupled with scrawled tags that say everything from “it’s yea moms fave” [sic] to “death comes for all of us” to “Dan + Bryn” to “monsh,” whatever that means.) 

The barrel of fresh blooms feels a little out of place in the hallway, but these flowers have been ousted, unceremoniously, from the cooler inside Ninth Street Flowers. Their new home, in the black bin, is only temporary. Plenty of people pass the flowers. Some lean in to (literally) smell the roses. Only a few stop to actually pick one up. 

Today the first is a teenage boy in a white T-shirt, gold chain, baggy gray jeans, and —the accessory of a generation — AirPods. As he enters the hallway to Cosmic with two friends in tow, he snatches a single pink rose. The flower is still coiled tight around the bud, it has barely bloomed, and he seems much the same. He leans against the walls as I ask about the bloom in his hands. 

Despite the “FREE” sign on the bin, he isn’t eager to discuss nabbing the flower. He answers questions with one- and two-word answers and seems ready to call his lawyer if I get any more persistent. He gives only his first name, Vincent. I ask how old he is; he says he is 17.

Asked why he took the flower, he shrugs. “Looks nice?”

Has he ever taken a flower before? Indeed he had. What did he do with it? Gave it to a friend. When I ask about the nature of this flower-loving friend he just lets out a single chuckle. His friends crack up. Realizing I have no power to detain them, they retreat upstairs for The Best Mexican Food on the Planet.

I get a bit more from Connor Bost, 17, and Ambrose Kee, 17, than I did from “Vincent.” The boys, so in sync with each other that even the tint of their lavender shirts match, are taking a lunch break as they study for finals.

Teenage boys — save once a year for prom season — aren’t exactly the target demo for flower shops like Ninth Street Flowers, but the boys, fresh off their Mexican food binge, are bubbling over the bin marked “FREE.” Connor has picked up a rose and Ambrose is about to — he’s taking a second to decide. 

They are students at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics just a few blocks away. Delighted by the sweet smell in the air as they exit the building, their sunny demeanors don’t seem like those of stressed-out juniors (or as they prefer, “almost seniors”). But they are stressed out about finals. The flowers, not usually purchased as study aids, are coming in clutch. The rose he is now holding is the perfect “destresser,” Ambrose tells me. Connor’s lips curl into a smile as he looks down at his rose and nods in agreement with his friend.

* * * 

The bin, when it appears, seems to materialize by magic — pushed out the back door by a disembodied hand. The hand belongs to Karen Flueck-Holveg, the general manager of Ninth Street Flowers. She is charged with caring for the bin.

“As people are taking them, they stick their heads in the back door and say, ‘Thank you for the flowers,’” says Karen Flueck-Holveg. Photo by Maddie Wray – The 9th Street Journal

Ninth Street Flowers has been putting its unused flowers out into the back hall for as long as Flueck-Holveg can remember. 

Pre-pandemic, the flower shop made sure to put out the bucket-o-blooms on Saturdays when little ballerinas, with pink tutus to match bubblegum roses, flocked to a class upstairs at Ninth Street Dance. 

But it’s not just about serving Cosmic diners and tiny dancers. As nice as it would be to just give away flowers, the program is, at least in part, practical. Ninth Street Flowers needs to keep its selection fresh.

“Flowers,” Flueck-Holveg says, “are like lettuce.” To stay fresh they have to stay cool. And even if they stay cool they still go all super-unappealing-brown-limp-romaine after a while.

They’re kept in a cooler so dense with flowers and greenery that it looks like a rainforest. The employees remove wilting blooms and move“flowers that are not quite good enough to put in somebody’s arrangement” to the black bin. 

Perhaps those flowers only have one or two perky days left; perhaps the flowers are just a little funky. Either way, Flueck-Holveg says, “they’re still beautiful, somebody should enjoy them.” So out into the hallway they go.

Photo above: The bin with free flowers in the stairway to Cosmic Cantina. Photo by Maddie Wray – The 9th Street Journal

Festival celebrates Black culture, draws hundreds

The day was hot, sunny and humid, but that didn’t stop hundreds of people from attending the 52nd Bimbé Cultural Arts Festival in Durham last Saturday, May 21. The event, held at Rock Quarry Park this year, celebrates the art, history and culture of Africa and African-Americans. Vendors sold paintings and jewelry, among other wares. Children painted their faces. And there was lots of music and dancing. Here’s what the day was like, rendered in photos:

Durham Mayor Elaine O’Neal (wearing sunglasses) joins festival organizers, community elders, and members of the African American Dance Ensemble cut a ribbon to mark the reopening of Rock Quarry Park and the launch of the festival.

 

In the festival’s arts and crafts tent, children string beaded necklaces (after getting their faces painted, of course).
Balloons in red, green and yellow (the colors of Pan-Africanism) line the walkway leading to the park’s entrance.
Takenya Feaster and her son Zayah Feaster enjoy a mainstage performance. Here, in response to the performers, they shout, “Peace, love and respect — for everybody!”
Festival goers could choose from an array of clothing vendors, including African Beauty, Jewelry and Artifacts, owned by Dan and Betha Orange.

PHOTOS TAKEN BY MADDIE WRAY, THE 9TH STREET JOURNAL

The characters behind Durham’s tiny libraries

There’s a mini-fridge in a front yard on Shepherd Street. At first glance, it looks like the Whirlpool has lost its life to the vicious cycle of college move-in and move-out. In its heyday, it would have been home to half-eaten Taco Bell orders and 12-packs of Bud Light, but it is now filled with books new and old (that the Bud Light drinkers probably didn’t read). The mini-fridge in Morehead Hill is one of Durham’s many tiny libraries. 

On this day it contains a random assortment of what Durham is reading (or … not reading): A History of Japan to 1334, Fluffy Bunnies and The Maddie Diaries: A Memoir. Like all the tiny libraries, the books in the fridge are free for the taking so long as the borrower replaces the book they take with one of their own.

There’s no official count, but a map kept by Kat Barbosa, an enterprising tracker of the little library movement, indicates more than 150 in Durham. Some are part of a national nonprofit called Little Free Library that sells, standardizes, and tracks the outposts for literary freecycling. Others are unaffiliated — and even include the occasional mini-fridge. Together they provide Durhamites with all the James Patterson novels (there seems to be one in every box) they could (n)ever read.

Typically, the tiny libraries aren’t former beer chillers. Usually they are wooden boxes, about half the size of a mini-fridge, mounted on posts and planted where passersby might notice them. Some are utilitarian, resembling birdhouses. Others are more ornate — carved into the side of a tree or built out of a repurposed newspaper box.

In the age of e-this and upload-that, with the contents of infinite libraries available to readers at the click of a button, the thought of even heading to the local public library seems to be a dream of days gone by. Little libraries, with an even littler selection — often of worn-out books, and, sometimes, a tinge of mildew — seem the antithesis of the digital age. And yet, they are thriving.  

Some of the boxes, like this one in Greymoss, are part of Little Free Library, a national group. But others around Durham are unaffiliated. Photo by Maddie Wray, The 9th Street Journal.

Some contain more than books. Everything from old magazines to glittery high heels to pieces of garbage have made their way into Durham’s little libraries. A repurposed kitchen cabinet with a living roof at 1402 Vickers Ave. played host to three books and a crushed Celsius energy drink can. The can — although recyclable — was not quite in keeping with the spirit of the literature recycling project.

Trash is not the only threat that little libraries face. Some in other cities have fallen victim to zoning violations, others to the elements, and some have been the subject of skirmishes over which officially qualify as “Little Free Libraries.” But the fundamental betrayal of the “take a book, return a book” model is likely the most damaging. One of Durham’s little library owners took to Facebook to explain that “every time I fill my library with books, they’re all cleared out the next day.” 

Amanda 

Donations are the lifeblood of the little library movement, but they can also be a bit of a pain when people, “not fully understand[ing] the take a book, leave a book kind of thing,” drop “baskets or boxes of books” at the base of little boxes that couldn’t possibly accommodate them. That’s what Amanda Waldrop, 38, the steward of the brightly colored wooden library on North Willowhaven Drive, experienced. 

“There were a lot of people who were purging during the pandemic too, so I feel like I got a lot of the purged items and they [were] making it my problem now,” Waldrop says. 

The doula and mother of two wasn’t thrilled about adding another task to her to-do list, but the occasional cleanup doesn’t dampen Waldrop’s enthusiasm about her Little Free Library. A 2019 birthday present from her family, it was the perfect addition to her front yard. 

Amanda Waldrop says that when books pop up in her Little Free Library, “it’s a nice little reminder from the universe – oh, this is a book you wanted to read.” Photo by Maddie Wray – The 9th Street Journal

Killing time while her daughter is at dance class, she is dressed in blue jeans and a white short-sleeve T-shirt that shows off the elegant floral tattoos on each arm. Her eyes widen as she talks about her love of books. Her job, which she also loves, gives her the flexibility to spend time with her kids and to spend most of her day reading. 

The Little Free Library prods her curiosity too. “It’s exciting,” she says between sips of green juice, “to see books that I might have on my ‘to be read’ lists that maybe I forgot about” getting delivered to her library. When they “pop up it’s a nice little reminder from the universe – oh, this is a book you wanted to read.” 

But she emphasizes that her little library isn’t about her: It’s about her community. Her front yard is a playdate paradise, complete with a swingset, set back from a sidewalk-less road. At first she worried that people wouldn’t see her little library, but she’s found that neighbors stop by almost daily. She loves when they do — sometimes even taking a moment to chat with her about the books and the magic of reading.

Kat

Kat Barbosa, 33, is neither owner of a little library nor a big reader, but she is a key player in the ad hoc Durham community: She meticulously keeps the color-coded, ZIP code-sorted, master list (a Marauder’s Map) of Durham’s little libraries. But she is quick to point out that she is not affiliated with the official “LFL organization.” Her map, which has been posted and reposted in many-a-Facebook group, was not “made in any ‘official’ capacity,” she is, in her words “just a nerd.” 

But Barbosa, an administrative assistant at an organic grocery broker, isn’t just anything. Sure, she’s got the glasses to back-up her nerd assertion, but they are funky, paired with an ever-cool floppy pixie cut and a wide smile. 

Kat Barbosa keeps the most comprehensive list of all the little libraries in Durham. Photo by Maddie Wray – The 9th Street Journal

In a town of book lovers served by the official “LFL organization” as well as plenty of other passionate  but unaffiliated library owners, Barbosa realized “that there was not really a central way to find them all.” In Durham, she estimates that at least half of the little libraries were not on the LFL’s official map, so Barbosa sought to fill this gap. 

Barbosa hasn’t gotten around to getting her own little library. She is a relatively new home owner, and her energy has been focused outward, on getting a little library for her daughter’s school. What’s more, when asked if she’s a big reader, Barbosa — voice lowered as if she’s admitting a guilty pleasure — responds “you know…I’m actually not.” She bursts out laughing. 

“I do think that books are really important,” she says, “and I think access to books is really important.” 

This proclamation seems abstract until her daughter wanders into the kitchen where we are chatting. Barbosa says Eliza, 11 is, “a super avid reader” who  is “always acquiring more books.” When Barbosa notices “oh, the books are literally falling off [her] shelf,” it’s time for Eliza to pick a few that she doesn’t want anymore. The little libraries are also convenient places to donate — especially when you know where all of them are. 

Karen

The mini-fridge in the 800 block of Shepherd Street is not on Barbosa’s map — yet.

The librarian of the mini-fridge is longtime purveyor of books Karen Stinehelfer, 78. Before landing in Durham, Stinehelfer owned the Genealogists Bookshelf, a rare book store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side once heralded by mention in the New York Times. Now, instead of selling out-of-print manuscripts, she gives away teen romance novels. A downgrade? Stinehelfer doesn’t think so. It’s not about the press, the ZIP code, the price tag (or lack-there-of), it’s all about the love of books.

Karen Stinehelfer – Photo by Maddie Wray – The 9th Street Journal

Rocking gently on her pillow-laden patio couch, she gestures toward the converted dorm room appliance and boasts that it “stays watertight through snow, through rain, through everything.” 

The former bookstore owner has found joy, once again, as a curator of books. When she gave that mini-fridge new life — TROSA trash turned into literary treasure — each book was chosen with care. Her approach was simple. “Good books only.” “Good” was everything from a set of American Girl doll books to an anniversary edition of Kerouac’s On The Road.  “There wasn’t any garbage at all,” she says, chuckling.

And there never will be. 

Stinehelfer keeps bins of great reads on her porch, on deck to become the newest editions in the little library. No longer worried about turning a profit, she tends to her little library, curating its collection like the book shop owner that she is — or at least, was. 

She relishes the little moments of her little library, such as seeing someone get a book and walk away. “Once in a while somebody’ll pass my car and they’ll have a book in their hand,” they’ll walk down the street the rest of the way, “waving it.” She cracks a smile. 

Her quote about her bookstore, published in the Times in 1977, still rings true when you’re searching for a book in Durham’s tiny libraries. She told the paper: When people “can’t find anything it’s not because there’s nothing to find but because they don’t know where to look.”

I’d suggest starting on Shepherd Street. 

Photo at top: Karen Stinehelfer with her mini-fridge-turned-little library. Photo by Maddie Wray – The 9th Street Journal.

A peek inside Durham’s little libraries

I’ve long believed that browsing through someone’s bedside pile of books  — the stack that they are “going to get to” —  is more revealing than reading their emails. You find out who they are… and who they want to be. (It wasn’t too long ago that my bedside-pile was a blend of French existentialists and the entire That Boy series — That Boy, That Wedding, That Baby.) Lately I’ve concluded that Durham’s little libraries are our communal night stands.

So let’s get nosy. 

We’ll start in Morehead Hill on Vickers Avenue, where the creak of a rusty hinge and faint scent of mildew mingling with that sitting-in-the-stacks-during-finals book smell announces the opening of this box of stories. The catalog is eclectic to say the least. 

Adam Schiff, the congressman from California, is sharing a shelf with Catherine Hart, author of steamy not-so-historically-accurate romance novels. 

Schiff’s Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could and Hart’s Summer Storm both promise drama, but of a very different sort. The jacket of Midnight in Washington says, “If there is still an American democracy fifty years from now, historians will be very grateful for this highly personal and deeply informed guide to one of its greatest crises.” Summer Storm is also, um, highly personal, promising a “tumultuous joining” that “would be climaxed in a whirlwind of ecstasy.” 

There are only three other books in the Vickers library — two recent(ish) mysteries and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

If you are worried about your immortal soul after all that romantic rapture and death o’ democracy, I suggest you swing by the little library in the 1100 block of Woodburn Road, which has a robust spiritual collection. The books include Pleasing God, Peace with God and two copies of The Case for Christ. You’ll also find  Cornelia Nixon’s decidedly-not-religious Angels Go Naked: A Novel in Stories. 

If books about God aren’t your speed, you might want to stop by the little library outside McMannen United Methodist Church on Neal Road — sure, you’ll find Bible Stories for Special Times, and one for kids about how God Made Nature.  But mostly there are thrillers, romances, and good mom-book-club-reads like The Last Bookshop in London

The trashy-churned-out-thrillers from James Reich, James Patterson, and Clive Cussler are coupled with books by New York Times best selling authors written to be deep, and… to be New York Times best sellers. There’s Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time, which, according to its front cover, is “a great summer read.” There’s The Small Backs of Children which, according to the Los Angeles Times is “a tour de force,” and according to an Amazon reviewer, is “just trying way too hard.” 

My survey found only one author whose books were seen in nearly every box: James Patterson. That’s not surprising, since Patterson has published more than 200 novels, but his presence, in tattered paperback and the occasional hardcover, was still impressive. Could you read his entire Alex Cross series by going from tiny library to tiny library? Perhaps.

My last stop is the biggest of the little libraries I’ve seen and as I try to peruse, I find myself struggling to unlatch the door. But the prize I find inside is well worth the struggle. It’s the screenplay for Shakespeare in Love. For the first time I am not just tempted to take a book, I do. I take it, and stash it in the book-strewn-backseat of my car.  

I know my obligation and have come prepared. I return to the not-so-little library with something to leave: The Easy College Air Fryer Cookbook: The Complete Guide with Simple, Affordable Air Fryer Recipes for Campus Life. 

Take a book. Leave a book. Add Shakespeare in Love to the pile that sits by my bed and taunts me.